Time to pick your plugs, hone your technique

This 38-inch, 18- to 20-pound buck fell to a Mag Lip plug. The fish also had sustained some kind of attack but was completely healed over and ran off 200 feet of line before I was able to turn him back toward the boat. Super fun! Tami Armendariz

At the top of this week’s report is the better-than-average success steelhead anglers have been having in nearly every coastal river up and down the state. Not ”red hot,” but anglers putting in the time have had prime conditions since water levels dropped a couple of weeks ago and determined steelheaders are finding limits on many trips.
Boating anglers have done the best in the past couple of weeks, with the ability to cover a few miles of river being an obvious advantage. The river water is clearing but there has been plenty of flow for drifting and fishing.
A little rain fell last weekend that replenished many north and central coast waterways and river levels should hold up into this weekend.
On the North Fork of the Alsea and the Moonshine to gorge section of the Siletz, the river has been running low, clear and the fishing on those two bank-fishing spots has slowed considerably since my mid-February report.
The fish are there but hard to catch in the low and gin-clear water. I suggest you ”down size” at these levels while bank fishing. Small spinners, 1/8-oz. jigs and drifted steelhead beads could yield a big return. But the likelihood of a couple more big rainstorms is pretty high in March. More rain would quickly turn around those conditions and steelhead in these upper river sections should keep coming home through March.
From my drift boat I fish only a single technique all winter, I ”back troll” plugs like Mag Lips in rivers with a lot of wild steelhead and I use diver and bait on streams like the Siuslaw that have mostly hatchery steelhead.
But conditions have been ideal for other techniques too; bobber and jig, side-drifting beads, swing spinners and old-style drift fishing have been productive from drift boats. The most productive steelheaders I know use only a single technique and are self-schooled on every aspect and how to adapt that technique to the changing conditions encountered during winter steelhead season.
My personal winter steelhead quest found my wife Tami and I – plus our friends Jim and Holly – on the Main Umpqua River a few miles upstream from Elkton Oregon last week. We met our associate Phil Strader, who has access to a private launch on the Kesterson’s BigK Ranch.
Now, the Umpqua River is open to everyone, but the private boat ramp put us on a stretch where there were few others on what turned out to be a couple of sunny and mild late February days.
Strader, a logger from Glide, Oregon, also runs cattle on his family’s 35,000-acre homestead. Five generations of Straders have lived there. Growing up in Glide, Phil understands the Umpqua better than anyone I know. Like myself, Phil is a veteran of tournament bass fishing.
If you are not familiar with the Umpqua it is truly one of our state’s ”blue ribbon” steelhead rivers that is only an hour from the southern Willamette Valley. The Umpqua has solid runs of winter steelhead December to March, and is one of our state’s best summer steelhead fisheries June to October.
There are also spring and fall runs of salmon and world class smallmouth bass fishing in the summer. On the main Umpqua from late December to mid March you will find a mixture of hatchery steelhead heading to the heavily planted South Umpqua. While 90% of the wild steelhead passing through the main river are heading home to the famous North Umpqua Wild Steelhead Reserve and on to the spawning waters of Steamboat Creek.
The downside to fishing the Main Umpqua in the winter is that the river is massive. After a heavy rainfall, the Umpqua can easily exceed flows of 200k cubic feet per second. The river muddies up quickly and can take a week or more to lower and clear. There are also technical rapids that begin to build as the river lowers to fishable levels that require solid boating skills.
Most anglers will opt to fish one of the Umpqua’s tributaries. Those wanting to retain a hatchery steelhead will flock to the South Fork and those seeking a catch-and-release trophy steelhead experience head to the North Fork. Though each fork has different steelhead management plans while the fish are traveling through the main stem, anglers will find about 40% of the steelhead are hatchery and the remainder wild, that have to be released.
High, muddy water doesn’t slow down these fish either, it only discourages the anglers. On the two days we fished, the river was high, had plenty of color and that is common for the Umpqua. It’s a big river!
There were five of us in Phil’s 22-foot jet sled and anchored on one of Strader’s favorite gravel bars. We put out an array of diving plugs in what guides call ”the wall of death” and for the next two days – essentially off the same gravel bar – caught and released about two dozen trophy-class wild steelhead.
We were hoping for a hatchery fish or two to take home but given the quality of the fishing experience we had on wild steelhead, none of us came away disappointed. You will find my personal contact information in this column, if you would also like to fish the BigK Ranch.
I have to also mention that last week the first Willamette River Spring chinook was caught in the river just below the Willamette Falls at Oregon City. …
Willamette summer steelhead are on the horizon, more tolerant of water temperatures. We are likely to see the head of the summer run pass over the falls in the next couple of weeks. …
Lastly folks, winter is nearly behind us, trout are being stocked and the angling opportunity will only increase through March and into the spring.



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